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Spatial Variations in the Urbanization of Former French Africa, 1885-2004
Despite sharing a similar colonial government and gaining independence in 1960, the former French colonies of
sub-Saharan west and central Africa have experienced varying trends of urbanization. Landlocked nations
Burkina Faso, Niger, and Chad currently range from 18 to 39 percent urbanized, while coastal nations Mauritania
and Gabon are 38 to 73 percent urbanized. These trends towards coastal development show a reversal from
pre-colonial growth in which many kingdoms (Ashanti and Sokoto) and cities (Kano and Timbuktu) developed
further inland. What has caused this reversal in urbanization and spatial demographics?
This paper examines how changes in French administrative policies and colonial goals resulted in differing focal
points of development in Africa. As French interests shifted between the interior and coastal sections of west
and equatorial Africa, resources and capital for development followed. While administrative policies from Paris
shifted the spatial focus of the colonial government, it also resulted in localized economic and agricultural
practices which contributed to rural-urban migration, increased urban unemployment and poverty, and deepened
the economic crisis experienced throughout most of the region (Hope, 1998). This paper will examine the
various phases of French colonial administrative policy, the impacts of these policies on regional economic
practices and populations, and the extent of the influence of these policies on urban growth and demographics.
FRENCH ACTIVITY IN AFRICA
French activity in Africa can be divided into three periods: the pre-war period from the late 1800s to 1914, the
inter-war period from 1915-1939, and the pre-independence period from 1940-1960. French goals in colonial
Africa changed very little during these periods. France concentrated on appropriating, exploiting, and developing
vast areas of land and resources in their colonies (Martin & O'Meara, 1995). France implemented various policies
to accomplish this objective, including programs of land tenure, development of transportation networks,
and investment in or adjustments to administrative centers. However, policy implementation varied between
coastal and interior colonies. Also, policies enacted in one location often affected people in other places.
The initial phase of this research included identifying the major urban centers of former French Africa. These
were identified by their reference as an administrative capital or governing center. The major urban centers of
today with populations greater than 100,000 were identified with reports from the United Nations Statistics
Division and listed in a table with collected population figures. Once these figures were collected, they were
graphed as a scatter plot. This allowed for an analysis of population patterns and trends.
The second phase of this project involved researching the policies of the French colonial government,
identifying colonial policies, and overlaying these with the population statistics of African urban centers. This
resulted in an analysis of the growth of urban centers with the implementation of governing policies.
This research paper uses findings from annual French-colonial statistical reports, national censuses, statistics
from the United Nations, and references in historical documents. Annual statistical reports include findings
from censuses conducted by administrators in the territories of French Africa. In years when no census was
taken, surveys and guesses of population figures were taken by colonial administrators and local chiefs. Often,
the exact number of the European population in an urban center was given, while African populations were
rounded off and estimated based on the number of houses found. These figures were found in statistical reports
such as Annuaire Statistique de L'Afrique Occidentale Francaise and Memento Statistique de L'Economie
Africaine. The population charts of African urban centers are based on these findings and figures. Data for
French administrative, economic, and urban development policies have been compiled from historical documents
and references including direct quotes and passages from administrators.
Fourteen nations in sub-Saharan Africa experienced French colonial administrative policies prior to
their independence. Nine of these nations, including Senegal, Mali (French Sudan), Niger, Guinea, Cote
d'Ivoire, Togo, Benin (Dahomey), Burkina Faso (Upper Volta), and Mauritania were members of the
administrative unit French West Africa. Gabon, Central African Republic, Congo-Brazzaville, Chad, and
Cameroon comprised the administrative unit of French Equatorial Africa.
French administrative policy altered the flow of rural migrants, seasonal workers, capital flow, and even
the populations of entire villages. Populations and trade routes which had primarily involved interior areas
were shifted towards the coast. Additionally, rural-urban migration is a self-perpetuating process. The vast
majority of migrants are young adults with a high fertility rate (Hope, 1998). This facilitates faster birth rates in
the urban centers while decreasing growth in rural areas and draining their potential workforce.
Fourteen countries in sub-Saharan Africa experienced some form of French colonialism. Eight of these,
including Guinea, Mauritania, Senegal, C6te d'Ivoire, Mali (formerly French Sudan), Niger, Benin (formerly
Dahomey) and Burkina Faso (formerly Upper Volta), were members of what used to be known as French West
Africa. Four countries, including Chad, the Central African Republic, the People's Republic of Congo and
Gabon, belonged to what used to be called French Equatorial Africa.
Pre-War Period Urbanization
Interior Colonies. In West Africa, the original economic plan involved modernizing traditional practices in the
area. Subsistence farming would give way to modern plantation agriculture increasing production and revenue
from the colonies. However, these efforts often failed as the labor force was too small and the idea of
conscripting labor clashed with traditional practices of migrant laborers. Traditional economic practices
often competed successfully with the French projects (Griffeth, 1985). As a result, the idea to modernize the
local economy changed to a policy of economic accommodation. From these successes, French policy was altered
to increase a worker's individual production. A large population of laborers developed as a response to
increased benefits through an agricultural lifestyle. It was profitable for rural farmers of interior colonies to
produce cash crops such as cocoa, coffee, cotton, peanuts, and palm oil for European markets (Martin &
In French Equatorial Africa, the economic policy of land appropriation to concession companies was
less accommodating, harmful to the population, and only profitable through exploitation. According to an inspector
in 1913, the powerful Compagnie Forestiere Sangha-Oubangui systematically neglected everything except
collecting rubber (Vidrovitch-Coquery, 1986). To foster the collection of resources on these lands, all who lived in
its bounds were used as laborers.
Throughout French Africa, growth of interior urban centers and the overall population was minimal if not
declining. Interior urban centers in Guinea and Mali experienced declines in population. Bamako and Kankan
(see Fig. 1) likely decreased in population as seasonal migrants workers left for Senegal to cultivate cash
crops (Vidrovitch-Coquery, 1985).
Coastal Colonies. The pre-war period saw the initiation of several principal railways. The Senegal-Niger line
of 1905, linking Dakar to Kayes; the Conakry to Kankan line in Guinea, completed in 1914; the Abidjan to
Bouake line in Cote d'Ivoire, and the Cotonou line to Save in Dahomey, both completed in 1912, all caused
a realignment of economic axes, causing populations to regroup (Vidrovitch-Coquery, 1986).
This altered the orientation of commerce toward the coast through the port cities established as
colonial administrative centers. For the majority of landlocked peoples living in French West Africa, inland
expansion of transportation systems altered their attention toward the coast and away from Saharan caravan
routes (Griffeth, 1985). New patterns of trade helped colonial authorities attract populations and secure
labor resources from the interior toward areas favored for development (Pheffer, 1985). This created new
urban centers while selectively draining older centers.
1900 1902 1904 1906 1908
1910 1912 1914 1916
Figure 1. Brazzaville, Bamako, Kankan, Conakry Population, Pre-War Period
When examining the coastal urban centers of Dakar and St. Louis, we can see initial stages of urban growth (see
Fig. 2). Dakar's population doubled from 1900 to 1914. This growth is expected with the emphasis of
development placed on Dakar. Completion of Dakar's port in 1910 and railroad junctions centralized
colonial administrative and economic activities to the city (Pheffer, 1985). While Saint-Louis displays growth, it is
not as pronounced reflecting the emphasis placed on Dakar. In 1902, Dakar replaced Saint-Louis as
the administrative capital of French West Africa. Not all coastal urban centers grew during this time period
however. Population decreases in Conakry and Brazzaville, both port cities and administrative capitals,
typify decreases in the overall populations of colonial Africa due to disease, conscription, labor recruitment,
and relocation (see Fig. 2)
Inter-War Period Urbanization
Interior Colonies. The end of the war exposed the deplorable health conditions many Africans experienced.
This was due to policies of relocation to new regions, troop recruitment, disease outbreaks, and natural
hazards which magnified difficult living conditions. In many areas, the normal rhythm of social and economic life
was disrupted by labor recruitment. Population densities fell below the level needed to maintain self-
sufficiency (Vidrovitch-Coquery, 1986).
5000 1900 Year
Dakar Saini Louis Conakry Brazzaville 1B80
Figure 2. Coastal Urban Center Populations, Pre-War-Period
By the early 1920s, officials noted declines in population. A fifteen percent decline was observed in Cameroon
and thirty percent declines in Congo and Central African Republic. In 1923, Albert Sarraut, the minister of
colonies, noted that "Our policy must be to preserve the African people. Thus there is a need for a far
reaching programme of metropolitan investment, for health and education services to improve African welfare
and thus productivity" (Vidrovitch-Coquery, 1986).
In the years following World War I, Paris enacted a strategy to spur economic revival. France encouraged colonies
to maximize production, support the war effort, and aid in post-war economic reconstruction (Vidrovitch-
Coquery, 1986). Increased economic production was based on the availability of labor. In West Africa, this
policy coincided with efforts to regroup thinly spread populations. In Upper Volta, Mali and Niger, cotton
production increased from 189 tons prior to the War to 3500 tons in 1925. However, increased demands drove
many in the region to flee. In the course of a decade, an estimated 100,000 Mossi fled Upper Volta (Cordell
& Gregory, 1982).
As economic production increased and France experienced a revived economy, the situation for African
workers hardly improved. Wages did not increase consistently, leading to a growth of non-contracted
migrant laborers traveling between colonies looking for better wages. Nearly 50,000 workers annually left
Burkina Faso and Guinea to harvest groundnuts in Senegal. While wages did not increase with economic successes
in the colonies, taxes did, rising from five francs before the war to twenty-five in 1930 and seventy-five in
the prosperous economic zones (Vidrovitch-Coquery, 1986).
Often, individuals increased production to pay off debts and taxes. By the 1930s, the combination of taxes
and deflated commodity prices was too much for many farmers to tolerate. In most colonies, people paid more
in cash than they earned. This compounded crises, such as demands for labor, food-production shortages from
the exodus of young people, plagues, and famines. By 1936, traditional farmers abandoned hope of surviving off
the land and fled to urban and administrative centers (Vidrovitch-Coquery, 1986).
During the years of World War I, colonial urban centers changed little in population, if they did not decline
from conscription and out-migration. With immediate post-war policies promoting increased production
and improved living conditions, colonial urban centers reversed their declines. However, as long as citizens living
in rural areas survived with an agrarian lifestyle, there would be few reasons to migrate. Overall, interior
urban centers demonstrated slower population growth than coastal centers. In Niger, transferring the colonial
capital from Zinder to Niamey (see Fig. 3) caused only slight population growth (Njoh, 2004). In Mali,
population growth at Bamako (see Fig. 3) was steady and likely augmented with farmers fleeing from
interior sections of the colony. In Upper Volta, Ouagadougou (see Fig. 3) likely experienced population decline due
to the use of the Mossi and other peoples as an "indispensable labour source for Senegal and the
Ivory Coast" (Cordell & Gregory, 1982).
Coastal Colonies. France exploited its colonies by extracting human capital in the form of conscripted
soldiers. Because of numerical inferiority to Germany, the French adopted a policy treating the African territories
as a troop reservoir (Martin & O'Meara, 1995). However, conscription was not limited to World War I. From 1919
to 1939, conscription caused a number of young Africans to flee to nearby English colonies which did not retain
During World War I, numerous soldiers were recruited from Africa impacting demographics, altering
economic practices, and disrupting family organizational schemes. French Africa supplied over 200,000 troops
for World War I with tens of thousands dying on the battlefield (Martin & O'Meara, 1995). The recruitment
process was alarming for most Africans. To counter resistance to recruitment, policy makers created bonus
schemes including exemption from future labor taxes or conscriptions. Despite these, Africans fled into the bush,
left the country, or deserted. Thirty-five thousand Senegalese took refuge in the Gambia and Guinea-Bissau.
In Guinea, one of every five recruited fled to nearby Liberia and Sierra Leone. Whole districts in Guinea
were emptied and others were reduced to half their numbers (Vidrovitch-Coquery, 1986).
S4 Bamako Population
'5150CD m- * Niamey Population
a A Ouagadougou Population
1000 - -
1915 1920 1925 1930 1935 1940
Figure 3. Interior Urban Center's Populations: Inter-War Period
In Senegal, the local populations were strained by soldier recruitment. As a result, production of millet fell by a
half and groundnuts by a quarter. In Cote d'Ivoire, there was less of a strain by recruitment and the colony
received migrant laborers from neighboring colonies. Subsequently, maize production increased eightfold and
cotton production by a factor of fifteen (Vidrovitch-Coquery, 1986). In equatorial Africa, a similar program
was launched in 1915. Rather than producing for France, every village was required to provide for troops
stationed in Cameroon. In the end, only a quarter of all produce was left for local village consumption.
France enacted policies to increase colonial economic production. To accommodate these demands, forced labor
was legalized. In 1912, work-taxes were enacted in Equatorial Africa ranging from eight to twelve days a year
In 1925 the policy was extended to fifteen days. In this region, recruiting campaigns were used for projects
planned in areas far away from the main population. Between 1921 and 1932, nearly 130,000 men were recruited
to work on the Congo-Ocean railway which often amounted to a death-sentence from poor health and
working conditions (Vidrovitch-Coquery, 1986).
As many farmers from interior colonies fled regions with high taxation and production demands, coastal
urban centers experienced increases in population. From 1931 to 1936, Dakar and Abidjan combined to grow
71% and Conakry doubled. However, few of these people were employed. In 1936, there were only 167,000
wage earners in West Africa, barely one percent of the population (Vidrovitch-Coquery, 1986).
When examining the inter-war population figures for Dakar and Abidjan (see Fig. 4), an increase can be seen
after 1930. Both centers grew slowly during the years of conscription and also show only slight growth during
the economic boom years between 1920 and 1930. A spike can be seen in Abidjan's population after 1934 when
the city succeeded Bingerville as the colonial capital (OTAL, 2005). When examining population figures for
Conakry (see Fig. 4), the population doubles between 1932 and 1936. Coastal urban centers in Equatorial Africa
also demonstrate population growth following 1930. In Brazzaville (see Fig. 4), an influx of tens of thousands
of workers was received during construction of the Congo-Ocean railway (The Dupuy Institute, 2000).
S60000 - Dakar
L- 40000 - * Conakry
20000 - *N
10000 - I -l
1910 1915 1920 1925 1930 1935 1940
Figure 4. Coastal Urban Center's Populations: Inter-War Period
Pre-Independence Period Urbanization
Interior and Coastal Urban Centers. Following World War II, politicians in Paris re-examined colonial policies
in Africa. An emphasis was placed on reform and development of urban and administrative centers. Reform
occurred as economic and financial management. During the inter-war period, the colonies were expected to
provide and assist France economically. After World War II, this was reversed. Emphasis on investment
and development in urban centers became more pronounced and did not focus exclusively on coastal urban
centers over those in interior regions. In 1946, politicians in France's 4th Republic reversed the traditional ruling
that the colonies should finance development from production based revenue and policies were made to
abolish forced labor and improve general welfare.
Goals to reform overall welfare of the African population involved investing in and relocating administrative
centers. In 1946, Cameroon's administrative functions were relocated from Douala to Yaounde, while in 1947
the same transfer occurred in Burkina Faso from Bobo-Dioulasso to Ouagadougou (Njoh, 2004). In most instances
of relocation, the welfare of the colonial administrator took priority. The moves in Cameroon and Niger
situated administrators in a more favorable climate. In 1950, the Vridi Canal was completed linking Abidjan to
the Atlantic Ocean (OTAL, 2005). This established Abidjan as the major port handling all goods coming in to
West Africa. In 1957, Nouakchott was established as the capital of Mauritania with a population goal of 15,000
(BBC News, 2005).
In 1943, regulation of urban development in France was broadened to cover similar activities in the colonies.
In 1945, law was passed requiring territories to create urban development plans. Urban centers from Dakar
to Brazzaville implemented this plan (Njoh, 2004). Architects in Paris designed city plans while workers
and departments in the colonies implemented them. While most plans were drawn up in the 1940s and 1950s,
they were not implemented until after independence in 1960 (Njoh, 2004).
Following World War II, colonial investment focused on the colonial urban centers and the capitals and
territorial headquarters, especially Dakar, Abidjan, and Brazzaville. The interior populations continued serving as
a reservoir of labor. Now, they were needed in the booming economies of the coastal areas (Njoh, 2004).
Facilities such as schools, colleges, hospitals, and religious institutions were constructed. These required an
initial labor force for construction and full time employees afterwards (Njoh, 2004). Urban centers with
job opportunities and institutions facilitating economic advancement attracted rural migrants.
Urban centers throughout West and Equatorial Africa experienced tremendous population growth. In Dakar
the population nearly tripled, in Abidjan the population quadrupled, and in N'Djamena the population
increased tenfold (see Fig. 5). Even when colonial administrators relocated operation, both cities
demonstrated growth. Brazzaville and Pointe-Noire (See Fig. 6) both grew, although Pointe-Noire grew faster with
the completion of the Congo-Ocean Railway, its port, and its brief tenure as capital of the French-Congo
(Adloff, Decalo, and Thompson, 1996). In Cameroon, Douala and Yaounde (See Fig. 7) grew following
an administrative transfer, as did Bobo Dioulasso and Ouagadougou (See Fig. 8) in Burkina Faso.
Post Independence Urbanization
Following independence, growth in African urban centers increased rapidly. Newly independent nations in
Africa retained the same policies implemented during the 1940s and 1950s. The urban center remained the
focal point of government and private sector investment (Hope, 1998). In some instances, the continuation
of colonial policy resulted in the relocation of national capitals. In 1983, Yamoussoukro (see Fig. 9) was
designated Ivory Coast's new national capital replacing Abidjan (Scaruffi, 2005).
Concomitant with the establishment of administrative functions was the creation in these centres of facilities such
as schools, colleges, hospitals, prisons and religious institutions. These activities required both an initial labour
force to construct the large buildings and other facilities necessary for their functioning and then, subsequently,
a pool of full time workers.
M - Dakar
. 200000 - Abidjan
150000 - N------ a
, * * A
A MA A
1942 1944 1946 194B 1950 1952 1954 1956 195B 1960 1962
Figure 5. Coastal Urban Center Populations, Pre-Independence Period
i _0000 *Brazzaville Population
iu 5 Pointe-Noire Population
1935 1940 1945 1950 1955 1960 1965
Figure 6. Brazzaville/Pointe-Noire Population Comparison, Pre-Independence Period
* 4 U 1
1940 1945 1950 1955 1960 1
* ~Qy Population
9 X(65 M&ft Population
Figure 7. Douala/Yaounde Population Comparison, Pre-Independence Period
50000 ---------------------m --- -
I 40000 -------------------------- ______
19S 1946 1948 1950 1952 1954 1956 1958 1960 1962
Figure 8. Bobo Dioulasso/Ouagadougou Population Comparison, Pre-Independence Period
In these urban centers, the populations have increased to such a degree that famines, diseases, droughts, and
small-scale wars have not impacted their growth. Only full scale civil war temporarily stops population growth
as seen in N'Djamena, (see Fig. 9) in which an estimated ninety percent of the population abandoned the city in
1982 (Decalo, 1997). Overall, urban centers have grown rapidly reflecting an instilled belief that
economic opportunity is found at the urban center. Cities such as Dakar, Conakry, Abidjan*, and Bamako (See
Fig. 10) have all experienced population growth. In situations where the colonial administrators moved
their operating location, the new capital grew quicker than the former. Niamey is three times the size of the
old capital Zinder (See Fig. 11), Ouagadougou is twice as large as Bobo Dioulasso (See Fig. 12), and Nouakchott
has surpassed its intended population goal of 15,000 (See Fig. 9).
While very rapid increases in urban populations in Africa are a relatively recent phenomenon, the economic
and demographic focus has been shifting from rural to urban since the late 19th century (Hope, 1998).
Many residents of interior colonies and cities have migrated to coastal urban centers identifying
economic opportunities along the coast and hardships amongst the interior regions. This reorientation of
the economic axis developed with the initial French colonial policy of developing transportation networks to
the interior and extracting labor and resources towards the coast, and continued with increased production
demands and burdens of taxation on interior agricultural areas following World War I. Following World War II,
France invested heavily in coastal urban centers to attract skilled laborers, other Europeans, and potential
colonial administrators. When colonial rule was replaced by national governments, policies favoring
coastal development at the expense of interior regions were continued.
This type of study can benefit future urban planners dealing with population issues in large urban centers.
One problem is that rural-urban migration is a self-perpetuating process. The vast majority of migrants are
young adults with higher fertility than the urban population as a whole. The long-term contribution of rural-
urban migration becomes much greater, as does the loss experienced by the rural population (Hope,
1998). Equatorial Africa appears to have a more stable situation. The nations of French Equatorial Africa
currently have a larger portion of the population urbanized than their West African counterparts. While the
fastest growth and urbanization rates are found in West Africa, Equatorial Africa appears to have reached a
1980 1990 2000 2010
Figure 9. N'Djamena, Nouakchott and Yamoussoukro Population: Post-Independence Period
= 2 5 0 0 0 0 0 - A-A -
oj *Dakar Population
5A A Abiajan Population
A D B Bamako Population
1950 1960 1970 1980 1990 2000 2010
Figure 10. Dakar, Conkary, Abidjan, and Bamako Population, Post-Independence Period
1950 1960 1970
A ,A" '
1950 1980 1970 1980 1990 2000 2010
Figure 11. Niamey/Zinder Population: Post-Independence Period. Population statistics for Abidjan
were collected from estimates given by the Institut National De La Statistique Du Republique De
Cote D'Ivoire (http://www.ins.ci/) for 1990 through 2005. These estimates give Abidjan the
appearance of linear growth which is not a typical way in which a city grows.
6 00000 ---------------------
40000 _ *Ouagadougou Population
L *4 QOtlja Population
1955 1960 1965 1970 1975 190 1985 1990 1995 2000
Figure 12. Ouagadougou/Bobo Dioulasso Population: Post-Independence Period
Despite receiving less funding for urban economic development, it appears that many in French Equatorial Africa
fled rural areas as a response to harsh exploitation by concessionaires. A consistent stream of migrants flowed
into urban centers like Bangui and Brazzaville. This, coupled with the population decline in Equatorial Africa in
the early 1900s may explain differences in urbanization percentages. Subsistence survival would have
been extremely difficult in these areas. Equatorial Africa subsequently started a rural-urban migration sooner
than West Africa.
Even though urban centers throughout Africa are growing at a rapid pace, those closer to the coast are
m aft. Population
larger. Attempts to relocate administrative urban centers from the coast to the interior as seen in Cote d'Ivoire
and Cameroon have not been able to reverse the trends of population and funding moving to the coastal
urban centers. The French had a lasting impact on the populations of West and Equatorial Africa.
Ports, administrative centers, and economic opportunities were invested in and developed faster along the
coast under French rule. This trend was carried over following independence by various African nations. As a
result, migrating families continue to follow the trail to economic opportunity which leads to the urban centers
along the coast.
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